Delicate

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Delicate (adjective) "easily hurt, fragile, sickly, sensitive, finely tuned"

This word came into English in the early Middle Ages with a wide range of senses from French and Latin. Several still exist today, displaying three main semantic trends: delicate people are easily hurt; delicate things are fragile; delicate concepts are subtle. These meanings often get in the way of our understanding of Shakespeare's 30 uses of the word. When Stephano describes Caliban as "a most delicate monster" (The Tempest, II.ii.88), he does not mean that Caliban is sickly, only that he is "pleasant, congenial", and this is what Banquo means when he says "The air is delicate" (Macbeth, I.vi.10). Desdemona is called delicate four times, and Ariel twice: here the required sense is "exquisite, dainty": "she is a most fresh and delicate creature", says Cassio (Othello, II.iii.20); "Delicate Ariel", says Prospero (The Tempest, I.ii.442). When Antonio describes temperance as "a delicate wench" (The Tempest, II.i.46), he means "pleasure-seeking, voluptuous", also the sense intended by Claudio when he talks of "soft and delicate desires" (Much Ado About Nothing, I.i.282).

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